Rahul Gandhi, Modi surname case, Supreme Court SC
In his appeal filed on July 15, Rahul said that if the July 7 judgment of the Gujarat High Court is not stayed, it would lead to throttling of free speech, expression, thought, and statement. | File photo

Modi surname case: SC to hear Rahul’s plea against Gujarat HC verdict on July 21

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The Supreme Court on Tuesday (July 18) said it will hear on July 21 Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s plea challenging the Gujarat High Court’s verdict which dismissed his petition seeking a stay on his conviction in a defamation case over his “Modi surname” remark.

A bench of Chief Justice DY Chandrachud and Justices PS Narasimha and Manoj Mishra agreed to hear the plea after senior advocate Abhishek Singhvi, appearing for Rahul, sought listing of the appeal on July 21 or July 24. The bench agreed on July 21 as the date of hearing.

Rahul in his petition, filed on July 15, had said that if the high court’s July 7 judgment is not stayed, it would lead to throttling of free speech, expression, thought, and statement.

Purnesh Modi, a former minister in the Gujarat government, had filed a criminal defamation case in 2019 against Rahul over his “How come all thieves have Modi as the common surname?” remark made during an election rally at Kolar in Karnataka on April 13, 2019.

HC judgment would throttle free speech: Rahul

“It is most respectfully submitted that if the impugned judgment is not stayed, it would lead to throttling of free speech, free expression, free thought, and free statement. It would contribute to the systematic, repetitive emasculation of democratic institutions and the consequent strangulation of democracy which would be gravely detrimental to the political climate and future of India,” Rahul said in his petition.

He said unprecedentedly, in a case of criminal defamation, a maximum sentence of two years has been imposed; itself a rarest of rare occurrence.

“The sentence has been suspended for the asking; however conviction is not stayed/ suspended. This has resulted in the inexorable exclusion of the petitioner from all political elective office for a long period of eight years. That too in the world’s largest democracy where the petitioner has been a former president of the oldest political movement in the country and is also continuously in the vanguard of opposition political activity”, he said.

Also read: Major setback for Rahul as HC dismisses plea to stay conviction in Modi surname case

Rahul said that he would suffer irreparable injury coupled with irreversible consequences resulting in injustice and as a consequence of the conviction, he is currently disqualified as a Member of Parliament from Wayanad, a parliamentary constituency in Kerala, and cannot participate in parliamentary proceedings.

His appeal said Rahul was elected with a record margin of 4,31,770 votes and in the absence of stay of conviction, he cannot contest in the forthcoming elections.

“The disqualification as MP on account of a frivolous conviction is causing irreparable harm and injury not only to the petitioner, who is a full-time politician, but also to the constituents of the petitioner’s constituency”, his appeal said.

‘Moral turpitude misinterpreted’

Rahul, as an interim relief, sought an ad-interim ex-parte stay of the July 7 order of the Gujarat High court and an ad-interim stay of his conviction during the pendency of this appeal in the top court.

He said that a political speech in the course of democratic political activity, critical of economic offenders, and also of (Prime Minister) Narendra Modi, has been held to be an act of moral turpitude inviting the harshest punishment.

Also read: Rahul plea in Modi surname case: MLA Purnesh Modi to file reply on Apr 11

“Such a finding is gravely detrimental to democratic free speech in the midst of a political campaign. It is respectfully submitted that the same will set a disastrous precedent wiping out any form of political dialogue or debate which is remotely critical in any manner. The phrase moral turpitude has been misapplied to a case which is not one relating to any heinous offense (eg. murder, rape or other immoral activity) and ex facie cannot apply to an offense where the legislature thought it fit to provide for a maximum punishment of only 2 years,” the petition said.

He added that the entire approach of the impugned judgment, as indeed of the judgments of the courts below, has been to mis-characterise the one-line statement of the petitioner as hugely serious.

Questions on complaint

Rahul said that firstly, an undefined amorphous group which, according to the complainant consists of 13 crore people, has been held to be defamed.

“The surname Modi in different parts of the country encompasses different communities and sub-communities, which usually have no commonality or uniformity at all,” his appeal said.

He added that the three specific persons named in the speech, who alone could have possibly suffered prejudice, have admittedly not sued or complained and instead, the complainant simply has a Modi surname from Gujarat who has neither shown nor been held to be prejudiced or damaged in any specific or personal sense.

Also read: Rahul plea against ‘Modi surname’ case conviction: Verdict on April 20

“Thirdly, the complainant admitted that he comes from Modh Vanika Samaj. This term is not interchangeable with Modi and the Modi surname is present in various castes,” the 731-page appeal said.

Raising questions, Rahul said, “It is not only curious but extremely significant, indeed sinister, that all earlier cases including all qua the present speech, have been filed by members and office bearers of the ruling party. It is ironic that the only persons allegedly defamed out of a supposed defined community of 13 crore persons are those who are office bearers or senior personnel of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).”

The Congress leader was disqualified as a Member of Parliament on March 24 after a Gujarat court convicted him and sentenced him to a two-year imprisonment on charges of criminal defamation for comments he made about the Modi surname.

In a setback to the 53-year-old Gandhi, the high court dismissed his petition for a stay on conviction on July 7, observing that “purity in politics” is the need of the hour.

A stay on Rahul’s conviction could have paved the way for his reinstatement as a Lok Sabha MP but he failed to get any relief from either the session’s court or the Gujarat High Court.

Also read: Why Rahul Gandhi faces jail in ‘Modi surname’ defamation case

On July 7 itself, the complainant in the defamation case against Rahul, filed a caveat in the top court seeking that he be heard if the Congress leader moves a plea challenging the high court verdict refusing to stay his conviction in the case.

A caveat is filed in an appellate court by a litigant seeking an opportunity of being heard before any order is passed on the appeal of an opponent challenging the order or judgment of the court below.

A metropolitan magistrate’s court in Surat had on March 23 sentenced the former Congress president to two years in jail after convicting him under Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections 499 and 500 (criminal defamation).

Following the verdict, Rahul was disqualified as an MP under the provisions of the Representation of the People Act.

He then challenged the order in a sessions court in Surat along with an application seeking a stay on his conviction. While granting him bail, the sessions court on April 20 refused to stay the conviction, following which he had approached the high court.

(With inputs from agencies)

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